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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Good Morning Vietnam! Part 11: The Central Highlands: Treking, Gongs, & Weasel Jerky!

The place closest to Dan's heart is the Central Highlands of Vietnam. After 14 years together I can attest to that. I gave him Israel, my home, and he gave me Vietnam! The only place he looks Truly at home, and Truly happy, as I look in Israel, is when he is in the Central Highlands! We hadn't been in Vietnam since 2008, and we were SO lucky to be able to return, thanks to my winning a trip from Central Coast Vietnam on Facebook!   

In my previous post I noted that our excellent guide in the Buon Ma Thuot area, Mr. Chinh of Happy Travel, arranged a great car and driver to Kon Tum for us, and helped make our reservation at the Indochine Hotel, Kon Tum's best hotel- which was only $35 a night! Kon Tum is the capital of Kon Tum Province, in the Central Highlands, and for us, the Central Highlands is the place closest to our hearts, as Dan has loved the Highlands and the Montagnard people for many decades- since 1968 and 1970, to be exact. For some info on that time-period, check out this link:  The Vietnam Central Highlands are known for having some 564 tribal villages of numerous "minority peoples", including the Degar, also known as the Montagnard, Viet, Ba Na, Brau, Giẻ Triêng, Jarai, Rơ Măm, and Xo Dang, and in 2008 we found a wonderful guide, Nguyen do Huynh, through an article on, a site that specializes in tourism to Southeast Asia. Huyn  speaks many of the Highlands dialects, as well as excellent French and English, and in 2008 he took us on several wonderful tours by motorbike to various villages, to the Jarai cemetery to see the incredible sculptures, to the home of a lovely weaver, so we could buy the handmade Highlands fabrics Dan remembered with great admiration, to drink Jar Wine, and down the Dak Bla (Black) River in a dugout canoe... and he created a Totally Amazing dinner party to celebrate my 49th birthday, with 49 red roses and Hanoi Vodka, among other things... 
On the Dak Bla River...
My 49th birthday in Kon Tu, with Huynh

Jarai Cemetery

Village Jar Wine...

One of the weavers we met...

With the weaver...

and in the process of all this he became a dear friend. After we returned to the USA, we helped him set up a website when he launched his own tourism company, Highland Eco Tours. We'd emailed and Facebooked with Huynh since 2008, and he knew that we were aching to return to Vietnam, and he was the first person we told about my winning the trip to Vietnam from Central Coast Vietnam Tourism, but I don't think he believed it was real until we emailed him from Buon Ma Thuot that we'd be arriving in Kon Tum the next day! We had our first meal together at a restaurant we enjoyed in 2008, the Dak Bla, around the corner from the Indochine, and it was just as great as we remembered it, with truly delicious food, and decorated with an exceptional collection of Highlands artifacts!

At the Dak Bla Restaurant, in 2008
In the Dak Bla Restaurant
Dak Bla Restaurant, 2015

Dan & Huynh, together again!

The last time we were in Kon Tum we stayed at a different hotel and only had breakfast at the Indochine- which wasn't anything special, just basically a big, rather ugly, soul-less, style-less Communist block. LOL The only thing that set it apart was fab glass wall of windows with an amazing view of the Dak Bla River from their (otherwise dreary) dining room. Well my, oh, my, have they spruced the old girl up! In addition to the gorgeous breakfast view, the Indochine now has a lovely Coffee Garden next door with water pools and arched bamboo pillars inspired by Vietnamese fishing baskets! We had coffees there, and as the only thing they have besides coffee is Tea With Rum, we had that, too! :-)

The Coffee Garden at the Indochine

The Indochine Hotel

Our first evening in Kon Tum was a blast! Huynh and his friends took us to a hidden-away garden spot by the river, where we relaxed and enjoyed music, and then we went to a Karaoke Music Bar and thoroughly enjoyed the flashy, fun, and trendy, young side of Kon Tum we'd never seen before!

Kin Tum at night!

One of the things we had wanted to do in 2008 was a "trek" into the more remote, mountainous areas of the Central Highlands, and this time we did it! The tigers and jungle Dan remembers are unfortunately long gone, largely replaced with taro, rubber, and coffee plantations, but the Highlands still has its "off the grid" wilder side, and that's where we went! We trekked with Huynh, his assistant, and a village elder who helps the rural mountain people. For me it was THE most grueling trek I have Ever Done In My Life (see the video below for proof! LOL) - literally 6km straight up and then straight down, but Dan was happy as a clam, literally dancing up and down the mountain! He was well and truly Home, and I LOVED seeing him like that! It was truly beautiful, with lush, wild greenery, extraordinary vistas of the valley below, and waterfalls along the way, but So steep, in fact, that I made it up only with help from Dan and the aid of a Great Big Stick, and came down it partially on my butt, ripping to shreds the pants I had on! But I made it! :-)
A trek into the Highlands...

Me, in the Highlands...

Dan, at home...
Huynh, explaining the flora of the Highlands...
A waterfall in the Highlands...

The Highlands...

In the "jungle"!

We stopped to rest along the way at a farmer's house in the mountains that is Totally "off the grid", enjoying tea, jar wine, and a snack of weasel jerky! Andrew Zimmern (Mr. "Bizarre Foods" from the Travel Channel) ain't got NOTHING on us! :-)
Huyhn makes us yummy bahn mi sandwiches for lunch!
A snack of weasel jerky!

A flower in the Highlands...

A rest-stop in the Highlands!

We had a delicious and fun dinner that evening at Huynh's lovely home, and it was wonderful to see his brother again, and to sit around and talk and laugh...

The next day Huynh took us by motorbike to a special place where we had a bite to eat and drank jar wine, and Dan learned to play the traditional Highlands gongs, and I tried to learn the Highlands dances! And we got to play dress-up again- this time in traditional Central Highlands dress: an embroidered loincloth for Dan, and a demure embroidered outfit for me! I've gotten so fat that they had a hard time squeezing me into their largest top and skirt, but Dan was, again, right at home in his loincloth- and nothing else! :-)

Yes, he knows what he's doing!

Dan plays the Highland gongs!

Jar wine!
Me, trying to learn Highland dances...

Hot Vietnam Chili Salt: BEST. CONDIMENT. EVER!

One of the loveliest things we experienced on this trip was when Huynh invited us to the wedding of his nephew. This was a very special event, and we got to celebrate it with Huynh and his family and friends, enjoying the festivities and music, along with a traditional 8-course wedding feast!

The Wedding Party Reception Line
LOVE the tee-shirt! Throweth Back Thursday with a Knight?!

A wedding feast!

The Wedding Party

Have a prawn! :-)

The lovely bride and groom!

A church, in the style of a Highland's "Rong House"

A traditional Highlands Cemetery

Motorbiking through the Highlands!
Motorbiking through the Highlands...

Highland's "Rong House"
That evening we all motorbiked it to "The Duck Place", for a delish dinner of roasted duck! Yes, the food never, ever seemed to stop coming- not for an entire month!
Another delicious, fun dinner with Huynh and Co.!

As the Pleiku airport was closed, we took the top-level overnight "sleeper bus" from Kon Tum to Saigon.  The bus didn't leave until 5pm, so we spent our last day in Kon Tum lazily wandering around, stopping to have coffee, eating more delish stuff at the Dak Bla, finding an adorable bar for fancy cocktails:

and then shopping! We bought vintage Montagnard embroidered clothing at the Dak Bla Restaurant from their 'museum', a couple of bottles of the Sim Wine made from a local Highlands fruit that Kon Tum is now famous for, a carved wooden statue I fell in love with because it reminded me of Dan playing the gongs, some embroidered gifts, and a Highland's basket at Lang Xanh... and a great, big suitcase to put it all in!
The carving that reminds  me of Dan playing the gongs!

Highlands embroidery & wine...
My Highlands basket...

At 5pm we boarded the night bus to Saigon, and were SO lucky to meet a Vietnamese-Canadian man and his wife, who helped us get Dinner Tickets so we could enjoy the really yummy and fun communal dinner on the way! I was able to sleep well, basically because I can sleep almost anywhere, but even with reclining seats, a/c, and a blanket, Dan didn't sleep much... :-( We arrived in Saigon early in the morning, and took a cab to our hotel, the wonderful Hotel Majestic!
Next: Foodie Fun in Saigon!

1 comment:

Tommy Bias said...

Elisse, I so enjoyed the pictures and comments. The commentary truly sets the tone for us who have never been to Vietnam to experience your trip in an amazing way.

Thank you and Dan for allowing us to enjoy to at least a degree the experiences you and Dan have while in Vietnam. It has had to be one of the most unique and unusual experiences ever.